Marcel Proust once wrote that there is nothing more persistent and vital than smell and taste to “remain poised for a long time, like souls, ready to remind us” of a long distant past.
In a country where the new and the old coexist in a comfortable marriage of convenience, it is the ritual, the ingredients, and the renewed love of traditional Korean cuisine which anchors this speeding train of a country to its rich and tasty heritage.
At first glance, Korean culture seems to be spiralling faster than its world leading internet connection speed, and then in a street full of Western-style department stores, with neon signs flashing and video billboards hawking celebrity, there: the faint smell of kimchi.
Running to catch up with my guide, I dodge street vendors (pojangmachas) selling delicious pastries filled with nuts and sweet things (honduckk) and stop in front of a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant (shikdang).
Inside, my guide orders me the Korean Table d’hote (hanjoeongsik) for a mere AUD6.00 and bibimbap (a rice, vegetables, egg and chilli paste mixture) for himself.
Before I can wipe my hands with the obligatory wet towel, dishes start to arrive, until the table, almost a metre in length, is literally covered in plates.
An echo of the banquets served at royal palaces, hanjeongsik is a full course meal of soups, hot pots and, on my table, 17 side dishes (banchan).
Much of Korean food today and the rituals of eating it have their roots in royal cuisine and ancient court customs.
For instance, my guide tells me that it is important to use the correct implement for each dish: a shallow spoon is used for rice and soups, while chopsticks are reserved for banchan.
Built around shared banchan, each dish of the hanjeonsik has been carefully selected to complement the other, such that there is a balance between steamed, simmered, pan-fried, stewed, fermented and raw.
The importance of balance (as seen through the national flag’s referencing of yin and yang) is in every aspect of the meal from presentation to spiciness, colour and texture.
In no other dish is this more evident than the infamous kimchi.
This fermented vegetable dish is ubiquitous at any Korean meal and its absence is unthinkable; in fact news of a bad cabbage crop has made front page news here and talk of cabbage currency is common.
While Chinese cabbage is the most familiar base to Westerners, there are hundreds of kimchi varieties including haruna made with choy sum, kkakdugi with radish and yulmu with spinach greens.It has been said that food is the gateway to a nation’s culture, and while not known as a culinary destination, Korea is worth the travel for the food alone; then on a stomach full of nutritious and delicious food, explore Korea’s beautiful landscape and learn from a culture, learning from itself.
Source = e-Travel Blackboard: Gaya Avery